What I’ve Been Listening to: Marvin Gaye/What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye’s seminal 1971 album transformed him from Motown’s most successful pop artist to a social singer.

The clip of Marvin Gaye performing What’s Going On, which I posted on the blog last night, reminded me of his seminal record from 1971. The concept album, which pushed the envelope at the time with lyrics that remain eerily relevant to this day, is one of my favorite records from one of my favorite soul artists. Not only was it broadly acclaimed, it also became Gaye’s and Motown’s most successful record at the time, selling more than two million copies by the end of 1972.

In the spring of 1970, Gaye was in a deep depression. Singer Tammi Terrell, his duet partner on songs like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Your Precious Love and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, had passed away from brain cancer at the age of 24. His marriage with Anna Gordy, an older sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, was failing. And Gaye’s younger brother, Frances “Frankie” Gaye, had returned from Vietnam, sharing with Marvin the horrors of war he had seen firsthand.

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

Then Obie Benson from The Four Tops handed Gaye a protest song, What’s Going On, after his band and Joan Baez had passed on it. The tune had been inspired by police brutality against young anti-war protesters in Berkeley, Calif., which Benson had witnessed during a tour with his band. Gaye liked the song and initially had in mind to record it with Motown quartet The Originals. But Benson insisted that Gaye sing the song himself. It would prove to be the channel Gaye needed to express what was going through his mind and plant the seed for an entire album.

When Berry Gordy heard the tune for the first time, he reportedly called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” He was concerned the song was too political and would not sell. But Gaye didn’t take no for an answer and refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy would change his mind. With the support of Motown executive Harry Balk and company sales executive Barney Ales, the song was released without Gordy’s knowledge.

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary

What’s Going On became an overnight sensation and Motown’s fastest-selling single at the time. Only during the first week, more than 100,000 copies were flying off the shelves. The song also climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Pop Chart and hit no. 1 on the R&B Chart. A stunned Gordy told Gaye he could record whatever music he wanted, as long as he’d finish an album within 30 days. Gaye did not need any further prompting and returned to the studio.

In only 10 days, between March 1 and March 10, 1971, Gaye recorded eight additional tracks for what would become a concept album. Kicking off with the title track, most songs lead into the next and have a similar laid back groove that is in marked contrast to the lyrics. Gaye covered a broad range of “heavy” topics, such as social unrest (What’s Going On), disillusioned Vietnam war veterans (What’s Happening Brother) – a song about his brother Frankie; environmental degradation (Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)); and the bleak socioeconomic situation of inner-city America (Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)). The aforementioned songs are also the album’s musical highlights, in my opinion.

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary 2

Reflecting on What’s Going On, Gaye told Rolling Stone, “In 1969 or 1970, I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”

Gaye dedicated the album to Marvin Gaye Sr., his strict father and a baptist minister, who had introduced him to singing through church music but also abused him as a child. Throughout his life, Marvin would seek his father’s approval, but whatever he did wasn’t good enough. During an excellent PBS documentary Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On, Motown road manager Joe Schaffner explained: “Marvin went to buy his dad a Cadillac. He would send him all kinds of gifts…His father would accept them…But he would never come to grips and say, ‘thank you,’ or smile, or none of that!” Instead, he would tragically become the man who would shoot Marvin to death during a physical argument on April 1, 1984.

Photo of Marvin GAYE

What’s Going On was Gaye’s first record to hit the top 10 on the Billboard Top LPs. It climbed to no. 6 and stayed on the chart for almost one year. The album also became Motown’s and Gaye’s best-selling record until his 1973 release Let’s Get It On. The album was broadly hailed by music critics. It also received numerous accolades, including best album of all time, as voted by writers on British music weekly NME, and a no. 6 ranking on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It was also one of 50 recordings selected by the Library of Congress that same year to be added to the National Recording Registry.

As first reported by Variety in July 2016, another film documentary about Gaye and the making of What’s Going On was planned by Noah Media Group and Greenlight. Production was slated to begin later in the year. Marvin, What’s Going On? was to include contributions from Gaye’s ex-wife Janis Gaye and his children Nona, Marvin III and Frankie Gaye – the first time his family supported such a project. Since I haven’t seen any other reports, I assume the film has not appeared yet.

Here’s a nice collage clip of Mercy Mercy Me.

Sources: Wikipedia; “Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On” (PBS “American Masters” documentary, May 2008; Performing Songwriter Be Heard; Rolling Stone; Variety; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Marvin Gaye/What’s Going On

A clip of the great Marvin Gaye performing What’s Going On, a song that sadly hasn’t lost any of its relevance, more than 40 years after its release in 1971 on Gaye’s 11th studio album.

Sources: YouTube

John Mayer Is Back With Reflective New Album

After three and a half years, singer-songwriter John Mayer has released a new full-length album, reflecting on love, life and getting older.

After two EPs each consisting of four songs from his new album, John Mayer has released the entire record. The Search for Everything is the seventh full-length studio album of the singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer, and his most personal and reflective work to date.

Mayer clearly put a lot of ambition in the album, reportedly spending hundreds of hours in the studio. “This is the longest I have gone in the incubation of a record,” he told Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t interested in doing anything I’ve done before, and I wanted to stoke the fire of abstraction and just start punching hard.”

John Mayer

The 12-track set kicks off with Still Feel Like Your Man, a soulful ballad with a soft, laid-back, funky guitar feel. Other tunes with a similar groove include Helpless and Moving On and Getting Over. Helpless also nicely showcases Mayer’s great abilities on electric solo guitar, as does Changing.

Love on the Weekend, the first single released last Nov, is perhaps the album’s most catchy tune. While in this regard it doesn’t quite reach previous songs, such as Daughters, Waiting on the World to Change or Say, it proves Mayer still knows how to write hit songs. Love on the Weekend charted within the Billboard Hot 100 at no. 53 and climbed to no. 5 on the Hot Rock Songs chart.

On two of the songs Mayer has some great help on background vocals. The above mentioned Helpless features Tiffany Palmer, who according to her bio has also worked with artists like Bette Midler, Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige. In addition, she has written for Anita Baker and Patti LaBelle. And then there is none other than Cheryl Crow, who provides background vocals on In the Blood.

john_mayer 2

Overall, The Search for Everything is a pretty solid album. Mayer’s guitar-playing is superb. A review in Entertainment Weekly noted it’s reminiscent of “the most reeled-in work of Eric Clapton’s solo career.” Perhaps one drawback is that all of the songs are slow or mid-tempo, which does make listening to the album a bit monotonous after a while. Throwing in a couple of uptempo tunes here and there could have mixed things up, even covers of blues rockers, which is a genre in which Mayer absolutely excels. On the other hand, I get this would have thrown off the album’s overall focus on personal reflection.

Further commenting on the album, Mayer told USA Today it’s about “getting older and comparing my track to other people’s. Part of me is a quote-unquote ‘rock star’ and part of me is this kid from Fairfield, Conn., who really wasn’t made for this. That part looks around at the other parts and goes, ‘Is any of this OK? Am I alright doing this?'”

All tracks on The Search for Everything were written by Mayer. He also produced the album, together with Chad Franscoviac and Steve Jordan (executive producer), with whom he has frequently worked in the past. Mayer is currently on the road to support the record with an extensive tour that mostly focuses on the U.S., with a few gigs in Canada and one show in London, UK.  The tour is scheduled to conclude in Noblesville, Ind. on Sep 2.

Here’s a clip of Helpless from a recent live performance in Albany, N.Y.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, USA Today, Tiffany Palmer web site, YouTube

In Memoriam of J. Geils

Earlier this week, blues and jazz guitarist J. Geils, who led what Rolling Stone called “the world’s greatest party band,” passed away at age 71.

Like most other people, the first time I heard about The J. Geils Band was in the early 80s when Centerfold was playing on the radio. The song and the album on which it appeared, Freeze-Frame, took the band to its commercial peak. Ironically, as is all too common in rock & roll, long sought and finally achieved success led to the band’s demise only a few years thereafter.

John Warren “J.” Geils Jr. was born in New York on Feb 20, 1946. As a child, he listened to Count Basie, Duke EllingtonBenny Goodman and other artists in the record collection of his father, who was a big jazz fan. During his high school years, he took up the trumpet and learned how to play Miles Davis tunes. But after Geils had heard Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and other blues legends on the radio, he put the trumpet aside and switched to blues guitar.

In 1965, while attending Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, Geils got together with bassist Danny Klein and blues harpist Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz to form Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels, an acoustic blues trio. In 1968, the band changed its style to electric blues, added singer Peter Wolf and drummer Stephen Bladd, and became The J. Geils Blues Band. Later that year, keyboarder Seth Justman completed the lineup. Prior to the release of its eponymous 1970 debut album, the band dropped “Blues” from its name.

J Geils Band Live Full House

While The J. Geils Band may be best known to most people for Love Stinks, Centerfold and Freeze-Frame, they were at their very best during their earlier years, particularly as a live band. In addition to 11 studio albums, 30 singles and various compilations, the band recorded three live albums between 1970 and its breakup in 1985. In particular Live Full House from 1972 is truly electrifying. I had a chance to see the band live myself in New Jersey in 2013, when they were an opening act – I believe for Bon Jovi. They played a great set, though Geils was not part of the lineup.

Justman and Wolf wrote most of band’s original material. Geils only has writing credits on their debut album, for which he wrote the instrumental Ice Breaker and co-wrote Hard Drivin’ Man together with Wolf, which I think is the best original tune of the album.

Apart from their own music, the band recorded fantastic covers of songs from other artists, especially on their early albums.  First I Look at the Purse (Robert Roberts, Smokey Robinson) and Homework (Otis Rush, Al Perkins, Dave Clark) from their first album, and So Sharp (Arlester Christian) and Looking For a Love (J.W. Alexander, Zelda Samules) from the second studio album The Morning After are great examples in this context.

J Geils and Peter Wolf

After the band split up in 1985, Geils got into car racing and restoring old sports cars. In 1992, he returned to music, producing an album for Klein and forming a band with Salwitz called Bluestime for Magic Dick. They released two albums: Bluestime (1994) and Little Car Blues (1996). Another project included New Guitar Summit, a blues trio with Duke Robillard and Gerry Beaudoin, which released two records in 2004. In 2005, Geils also put out a solo jazz album, Jay Geils Plays Jazz.

The J. Geils Band did occasional reunions after their breakup. Then things started to go downhill. In 2009, Geils obtained a trademark for The J. Geils Band name, of which he informed his band mates in 2011, his lawyer told Billboard. In August 2012, Geils sued his former band mates after they had announced a tour without him. As reported by Rolling Stone, he claimed Wolf, Salwitz, Klein and Justman “planned and conspired” to exclude him from the tour while unlawfully using the group’s trademarked name.

On April 12, Geils was found dead by police officers at his home in Groton, Mass. He appeared to have died of natural causes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Geils and his former band mates reconciled.

Here’s a clip of a live performance of First I Look At the Purse.

Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, Rolling Stone, Billboard, The New York Times, YouTube

 

What I’ve Been Listening to: Flamin’ Groovies/Supersnazz

After seeing an intriguing review of one of their albums, I started listening to the Flamin’ Groovies and immediately liked what I heard.

I literally heard about the Flamin’ Groovies for the first time two days ago, when I saw a review of their third album Teenage Head on the excellent hotfox63 music blog. The next thing I learned was Mick Jagger reportedly noted similarities between that album and Sticky Fingers, adding the Flamin’ Groovies had done a better job in revisiting the theme of classic blues and rock & roll than The Rolling Stones on their widely acclaimed 1971 studio release. That got my full attention!

After listening to Teenage Head, an amazing album that sounds very “Stones-esque,” I decided to go back to the band’s beginning: Supersnazz, their first studio album released in Sep 1969. Just like Teenage Head, the record is full of raw energy and has a good dose of Stones-like sound.

Right from the get-go, the Flamin’ Groovies leave no doubt they mean business, kicking things off with a fast blues rocker, Love Have Mercy. This is followed by a fantastic cover version of the Bobby Troup classic The Girl Can’t Help It, which was first performed by Little Richard in 1956. Other standouts among the upbeat tunes on the album are The First One’s Free, Bam Balam and the final song on the original release: Around the Corner, where the band throws in vocal harmonies that are a bit reminiscent of The Beach Boys.

Flamin Groovies_Supersnazz 3

The album’s mid-tempo songs also include gems, such as Laurie Did It and A Part From That, which sound less like blues rock and more like British Invasion pop. It’s a style the band would largely embrace on their albums beginning from the mid 70s – a trajectory that started when co-founder Roy Loney left in 1971 and was replaced by singer and guitarist Chris Wilson. While in the process the Flamin’s Groovies lost some of its originality, as a huge fan of the British Invasion, I don’t consider their transformation as a turn-off!

For a debut album it’s impressive that of the 12 songs on the original edition only four were cover versions. Speaking of covers and coming back to Teenage Head, the CD edition of that album features seven bonus tracks, most of which are remakes. Superb versions of Shakin’ All Over (Johnny Kidd & the Pirates), That’ll Be the Day (Buddy Holly), Louie Louie (The Kingsmen) and Carol (Chuck Berry) prove the high caliber of The Girl Can’t Help It from Supersnazz was not a one-off.

Here’s a clip of Love Have Mercy.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Journey’s Trip Leads to Rock & Hall of Fame

Journey, one of my favorite rock bands, joins a long list of music artists to receive one of music’s biggest honors.

Friday night (April 7) was the moment Neal Schon thought would never come. Journey was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And what initially had looked like against all odds, Steve Perry joined his former band mates on stage to accept the honor, marking his first appearance with Journey in 26 years. Though some rumors persisted until the last minute, he did not perform.

While Journey had become eligible for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame more than 15 years ago, they were only nominated last year and made it in right away. That’s unlike many other inductees, who had been eligible for even longer periods and/or been nominated multiple times prior to their induction.

Sadly, the induction ceremonies are notorious for drama surrounding former and present members of bands. More recent examples include Chicago and Peter Cetera, and Deep Purple and Ritchie Blackmore. Journey was no exception, though in their case, the outcome was mostly a happy end!

A certain degree of creative tension in a band can help their music evolve, so it’s not an inherently bad dynamic. But unfortunately, all too often such differences turn personal and bring out big egos. Ironically, for many bands this seems to happen after they become successful. When more is at stake, all the brotherhood and time and effort to get to that stage seem to be forgotten!

Steve Perry clearly was bitter when Journey continued to travel without him in 1998. Following the band’s recording of their 1996 reunion album Trial by Fire, Perry suffered a hip injury in Hawaii. He was told it required hip replacement surgery. This put the band’s planned tour in support of the album on hold. After Perry had refused to undergo the procedure for 17 months, Schon and keyboarder Jonathan Cain lost their cool. They told him to either get under the knife so Journey could resume touring upon his recovery, or they would look for a new singer. Perhaps not surprisingly, Perry was taken aback by this ultimatum and decided to leave the band.

Steve Augeri & Journey 2

Journey went on to hire Steve Augeri as their new lead singer and also replaced Steve Smith on drums with Deen Castronovo, who Schon and Cain had known from their common time with Bad English. I saw that lineup of Journey in the late 90s and was really impressed. I had doubts it was possible to replace Perry, who in his prime time had a voice like no other rock singer. But Augeri sounded surprisingly similar to Perry, and he also did an incredible job hitting and holding these impossibly high notes. From my distant vantage point, he even looked a bit like Perry – frankly, it was almost a bit creepy!

Unfortunately, belting out Journey songs and hitting these crazy high notes night after night took a toll on Augeri’s voice. First challenges started to emerge in 2003, and in 2006, he was dropped from the band. The officially stated explanation was a “chronic throat infection.” For some time, Jeff Scott Soto from Swedish hard rock band Talisman filled in on lead vocals. Finally, in the summer of 2007, Cain and Schon found Arnel Pineda on the Internet. The Filipino singer had been a big Journey fan and performed some of their songs with his cover band The Zoo, which were posted on YouTube – what an incredible story!

I also saw the current Journey lineup with Pineda last April in a superb double bill with the classic Santana band – one of only a handful of gigs the two bands did together. The show predated my blog, so I never got to write a review. In a nutshell, it was absolutely amazing seeing guitar legend Carlos Santana reunite with Schon, Gregg Rollie and other members of the classic Santana band, and playing iconic tunes from their first three albums, as well as their then-new release, Santana IV. Journey’s set was also fantastic, and Pineda did an amazing job on lead vocals.

Arnel Pineda Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Back to the induction ceremony. Journey played three of their best known songs, all from the Perry era, their most commercially successful period: Lights (Infinity, 1978), Don’t Stop Believin’ (Escape, 1981) and Separate Ways (Frontiers, 1983). After reports had emerged that Perry would be there, naturally, fans didn’t stop believin’ he’d also perform. In a couple of interviews leading up to the big night, Schon seemed to be very open about the idea; recognizing Perry’s vocal abilities have changed, he also offered to lower the key of one of their songs.

Steve Perry Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2

While it’s sad Perry ended up not performing, especially for Journey fans, I think he deserves a lot of credit for joining his former band mates on stage and giving a very gracious speech. I thought one the high points was when he called out Pineda: “I must give a complete shout out to someone who sings his heart out every night, and it’s Arnel Pineda…To Arnel, I love you.” While Perry certainly couldn’t blame Pineda for his painful departure from Journal, putting aside all his past bitterness and showing up for the fans really was a class act!

Following are excerpts from the remarks from some of the other Journey inductees, as reported by Rolling Stone:

Neal Schon Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Schon: “Steve Perry [Applause] If it wasn’t for him, there would be no Journey. [Former Journey manager] Herbie Herbert, thank you from the bottom of my heart, for finding me after Gregg was picking me up in high school when I was 15. Soon after that, I was in the Santana group.”

Gregg Rolie Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Rolie: “This is my second trip here. And what a trip this has been. First Santana, Journey, Ringo Starr [since 2012, Rolie has been a member of Ringo’s All-Star Band] and back here with Journey…And Neal Schon…saving me from the restaurant business. Don’t ever do it. Just start Journey.”

Steve Smith Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Steve Smith: “I’ve started out in 1963 at nine years old as a jazz drummer…it wasn’t until 1969 that I discovered rock & roll…As disc jockey Alan Freed, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee once said, “Rock & Roll is really swing with a modern aim. It began in the levies and in the plantations, and featured blues and rhythm.” He said this in the 1950s.”

In addition to Perry, Schon, Rollie and Smith, Journey inductees included current keyboarder and bassist Cain and Ross Valory, respectively, as well as Aynsley Dunbar. Dunbar was the drummer on Journey’s first four albums Journey (1975); Look Into the Future (1976); Next (1977); and breakthrough Infinity, the only overlap with Perry. Since Pineda only joined Journey in 2007 and as such was not eligible yet, he wasn’t inducted.

Here’s a clip of Journey’s performance of Don’t Stop Believin’ during the induction. It doesn’t do great justice to the band’s sound and Pineda’s outstanding voice the way I remember it from last year, but it’s the best footage I could find.

Excerpts from the induction will be shown on HBO on April 29 at 8:00 PM ET/PT. It should be awesome!

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, YouTube

 

 

Deep Purple Still in Rock

With their latest studio album Deep Purple proves they still mean business.

It ain’t Machine Head, but let’s be reasonable here: Comparing Deep Purple’s just released 20th studio album inFinite to what may well be the greatest classic hard rock albums of all time is also a bit unfair.

The fact that at this stage in their long career Deep Purple invested the substantial amount of effort to record new music is laudable in and of itself. Based on posts I’ve seen on the band’s Facebook page, it sounds like inFinite took quite some time to make. Because of the extraordinary commitment it takes to record a new album, other music artists who also became big during Deep Purple’s most successful period essentially no longer bother – so kudos to Deep Purple!

In the era of music streaming and digital downloads, the band is unlikely to make much money from the album’s sales. Sure, you could say it should primarily be about the music and giving something new to their loyal fans. Plus, they’ll be embarking on an extended world tour in May and no doubt will earn cash. And, yes, with reported album sales of more than $100 million, it’s safe to assume these guys don’t exactly live in poverty. Still, wouldn’t you want to get rewarded for work you put so much time and effort into?

Deep Purple inFinite 2

As I started listening to inFinite, my first thought was the music still has one the key ingredients I’ve always loved about Deep Purple: Giving equal roles to distorted guitar licks and the seductive sound of a Hammond organ – almost nothing else gives me more goose bumps in music than a growling Hammond!

There is also a refreshing amount of energy in many of the tunes. Let’s not forget most of the band is in their late 60s and early 70s, except for guitarist Steve Morse who at age 62 is almost a bit of a baby – okay, let me rephrase, a teenager! In one of the clips on their Facebook page, singer Ian Gillan said, “I used to be an angry young man, and now I’m fucking furious again!” Yep, I’d say this definitely comes through in some of the songs.

The album kicks off vigorously with Time for Bedlam, after a spoken intro that lasts about 30 seconds. It’s a great example of what I said above – giving equal weight to electric guitars and a roaring Hammond can make for a terrific combination. While there is probably nobody like Jon Lord, I have to say keyboarder Don Airy really shines in the song’s instrumental part and also does a great job on the album’s other tunes.

Hip Boots, the album’s second song, also reminds me a bit of the Mark II era. The band’s classic line-up from late 1969 – 1973 recorded the two albums I still think are their best: Deep Purple in Rock and Machine Head.

Deep Purple Mark II

Other songs on inFinite I’d like to call out as nicely rocking along include One Night in Vegas and On Top of the World. And there is the cover of Roadhouse Blues, The Doors’ classic from 1970. While I find Ian Gillan’s singing a bit subdued here, he does a cool job on the blues harp. Saving this cover are Don Airy’s cool honky tonk piano and the driving groove provided by drummer Ian Paice and bassist Roger Glover – proving once more you can’t have a great band without a great drummer and a great bassist!

Like its predecessor Now What?!inFinite was recorded in Nashville and produced by Bob Ezrin. Hailing from Toronto, Canada, Ezrin has worked with an impressive array of other music artists over a 40-year-plus career, including Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel, to name some. Something else I find cool is the album’s cover art. It combines a cursive style p and d to form the infinity symbol, making it appear it all was created by an icebreaker – pretty neat!

There is speculation inFinite may be Deep Purple’s final studio album. That’s perhaps not surprising, given the band named its upcoming word tour The Long Goodbye Tour. After all, the physical demands of the rock & roll business and touring in particular become tougher with age. And in June 2016, Paice suffered a so-called mini-stroke. But as this review rightly points out, inFinite and The Long Goodbye Tour seem to be contradictory names. Plus, a few years ago, the Scorpions were also talking retirement – just saying…

Here’s a clip of Time For Bedlam.

Sources: Wikipedia, Deep Purple Facebook page, TeamRock.com, YouTube